Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Comparing Doubts

One of the challenges of being a theater reviewer is to resist engaging in too many comparisons. Yes, a review needs to be written within a cultural context, but not necessarily the context of the reviewer’s world.

For example, how meaningful is it to most readers to compare the production of one show with the production of the same show at another theater? The very nature of theater is that once something is performed, it is gone forever. There is no going back and renting the production to see it again.

Yet as a critic, it is often impossible to not mentally compare shows, especially those that have been particularly iconic or memorable. It is even more challenging, when the shows occur near each other in time.

While printed reviews may not be an inappropriate venue for comparing a show, in today’s electronic world, we have a highly appropriate venue for doing comparisons in the blogosphere. Here the conversation can extend to: what made one show work and not another? How did different interpretations affect the overall presentation of the show?

So that's exactly what Don Calamia from Between the Lines and I are doing. Each of us went to see Doubt performed at BoarsHead, Detroit Rep, and Performance Network between November and March. In both of our blogs this week, we're comparing those productions.

Yesterday, we each named our personal all-star cast, drawn from those three performances only. Today, we're going to discuss which show we liked best--not an easy task because all of them were so good.

On a large scale, the three productions of Doubt at BoarsHead, Detroit Rep, and Performance Network were very similar. There were differences in details and some in tone, but they consistently delivered strong shows posing the same central question.

Some Variations

Interestingly enough, the blocking for the three shows was incredibly similar, despite having three different directors (Jonathan Courtmanche made his professional mainstage directing debut with this show at BoarsHead, Charlotte Leisinger directed at Detroit Rep, and John Seibert directed for Performance Network). Leisinger's was probably the most different as her actor movements were often done to set up power plays between them.

The BoarsHead show had the greatest amount of humor in it. Lines were delivered in such a way to produce the maximum amount of laughter in what is mostly a pretty serious, intense script. This was seen to the greatest degree in the interactions between the two sisters, but it was present even in the scene with Mrs. Muller where she comes upon Sister Aloysius listening to a confiscated radio. The show also had the greatest amount of energy, in no small part because of Amy Fitts' portrayal of Sister James.

While BoarsHead and Performance Network used a lot of heavy shadows and minimal lighting, the Detroit Rep’s production had the brightest lighting. It made much of the action more immediate. While shadowing can be very artistic, it can also be distracting. The Detroit Rep show had a feeling of immediacy and realism that was impossible to escape from.

Another thing that the Detroit Rep did very well was to constantly shift the balance of power. All of the characters had their moments of power and their moments of helplessness. (The photo at left is from the Detroit Rep production.)

The Performance Network's production had the greatest amount of vulnerability and humanity in it. All of the characters experienced uncertainty and doubt throughout the performance, even if they were trying to keep it hidden from their peers. It was also the Performance Network show that had the greatest amount of intensity.


Whether it was the directors' intent or not, I did walk away pondering different questions after each production.

After the BoarsHead show, my reflections were on the hypocrisy of people today who look back upon the abuse scandals of the priesthood and are convinced they would have acted differently. The show portrayed how difficult it is to know what actions are the right ones to take when dealing with a situation of potential abuse.

After the Detroit Rep show, I found myself deeply engaged in a discussion about whether the priest was abusing the boy or whether he was meeting with him to surreptitiously encourage Donald Muller to explore and become comfortable with his sexuality.

After the Performance Network show, I found myself contemplating the relationships in the hierarchy and how much relied on the eloquence of individuals to make things happen outside of that hierarchy. I also found myself pondering the ethical questions raised by Sister Aloysius when she said that in order to address evil, one must step away from God and that innocence is a luxury belonging only in a world without evil.

It's Not Just the Actors

Yesterday as I wrote the explanations for which of the four actors I liked best in each of the roles, I thought also about some of the technical aspects and whether I would add a costumer, set builder, lighting designer, etc. to each of my all-star casts. As I pondered that, I realized that in nearly all of the categories, the strongest showing came from the Performance Network production. (Though, once again, this is a matter of degree as all three shows had extremely high production values with very talented technicians.)

While it was at times too dark, Lighting Designer Janine Woods' projected stained glass windows on the sides of the audience and on the floor during the sermon scenes were a beautiful touch. Daniel Walker's set created a highly authentic principal's office from the 60s and an evocative garden bounded by columns.

All three shows had strong costuming--all of them putting the nuns in the traditional bonnets that sisters of their order wore. I did find myself wondering whether that order eschewed the traditional "Bride of Christ" wedding bands worn by other nuns on the right hand, but that most likely speaks more to my distractability than any shortcoming on the part of the costumers.

Some Things I Didn't Like

In all three shows, I was bothered by the ending. It seemed far too much of a break in character and felt overdone. It's a moment that would likely be far more effective had it been underplayed. Likewise, I was bothered in the Performance Network's production by a similar breakdown on the part of the priest at the end of the previous scene. It took too long and I was convinced that this previously macho priest would have such an extreme exterior reaction.

I also didn't care for the intermission that was inserted into the Detroit Rep shows. The other two were done without intermission and I much preferred seeing the show all the way through without stopping midway to begin any discussions of guilt vs. innocence.

So Which Was My Favorite?

Actually, the answer of which production was my favorite is different from which show I thought was done best. My favorite show was the BoarsHead production. I appreciated the humor that they found in it. Also, it was the one that most sparked a connection with modern-day issues. I was immediately brought back into the priest controversy and the issues that swarmed around it.

This production was less about the individuals and their private issues and more about the societal issues that we're still struggling with. It put a spotlight on modern society's desire to have easy answers that are black and white rather than acknowledging that there are complexities that might belie the simple answer.

Which Production Would I Call The Best?

Now, having said that BoarsHead's show was my personal favorite because of the issues that it raised for me, I also have to say that stepping back from my private preferences, I wouldn't rank it as the best of the three shows.

Once I look at all the relationships, the technical aspects, and the choices made in how the characters were played, I'd have to rank Performance Network's production as the best of the three. If all three were playing at once, it is likely the one that I would recommend first.

Now that you've made it through this entry, I strongly encourage you to go read what Don has to say in his blog, Confessions of a Cranky Critic.

Come back tomorrow to read in each of our blogs whether we thought the priest was guilty or not guilty in each production.

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